2019 Sep 6, 1:18am
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John, intelligent and quick-witted, held advanced degrees in clinical psychology,
and his work in information technology allowed the Kastens to travel to almost all 50 states. At his peak, John earned $150,000 a year and the couple lived in a stately two-story house with six bedrooms in Port Murray, N.J. On the half-acre property, they had a Corvette in the garage and an outdoor shed for a tractor.
In 2007, the couple had just relocated to Fullerton, home to three generations of Laura’s family, after more than a decade on the East Coast and in Arizona. Their intention was to help John’s dad, who suffered a stroke, so they moved in with him and Laura began working as his caregiver.Still, tensions ran deep, and soon John was served with a restraining order after assaulting Laura. He had to leave, turning to life on the streets.About seven years later in 2014, John’s father died at age 92. Laura became homeless after his death, when John sold the house he had inherited from his dad, using some profits to pay for a court-sanctioned rehabilitation program for Laura so she could avoid jail, having been convicted for possession of meth in 2013.
“He did it to save me,” Laura said. “We started out good. But the story of our family may not have a perfect ending. No family can stay strong through so many generations.”Laura drifted to the riverbed and began to collect things to set up her compound — struggling as others kept stealing her stuff. For her, life was less scary with John in it. She contacted his old friends and eventually found him living underneath the 57 Freeway bridge in Placentia. They were reunited.Today, three of Laura Kasten’s five children battle with drug addiction.Sometimes when she’s short on drugs, Kasten goes to her daughter, Christine Flavin of Placentia, and borrows a stash.
Even as her own children struggled, Laura became a mother figure in the camp, where she and John created a different kind of family.She doted over Sebastian, her wire-haired terrier and dachshund mix who, she said, “has the last piece of my heart” and loved her without judgment.Laura did her best to make her and John’s tents a home. She placed a piece of artificial turf on the ground for green space. She set out plastic lawn chairs she had retrieved from a trash bin. The shelf was stocked with canned foods and cereal. A bag of dog food sat in one corner.“These throwaways are still good,” Kasten liked to say. “But we — we’re also throwaways for that’s how we’re treated. The government who are in a position to help us would just want to forget about us — unless they’re forced to do something. No one wants to bother because they see us as useless.”
Some of the homeless bartered drugs. At times, they shared, expecting a favor in the future. Laura scrounged for copper wiring to sell, enabling the couple to buy bits to soothe their cravings or to get a few supplies.
Instead, he hopped on his bike, saying he had some errands to run. Later, he stole a rib-eye steak from a store and gave it to his wife, serving it with a Valentine’s card covered in hearts.
“They ask her for Band-Aids or clothing or food,” said one of Kasten’s neighbors, Jodi Samhat, 34, who grew up in Irvine and has been on the streets for over two years. “People look down on the homeless because they think we’re some kind of criminals, but the truth is, being homeless, like catching the flu, can happen anywhere to anyone, not just those in the inner-city.”
But by Feb. 23, they were assigned a new destination: a room at a run-down motel along Beach Boulevard in Anaheim with about 50 other homeless people....The homeless residents had to agree to almost two dozen “house rules,” including no loud noises or “violent threats” and “absolutely no use or possession of drugs in the hotel.”
County officials had signed a lease for six more months, hoping to house the mentally-challenged homeless there until another solution could be found.
In early May, inspectors for the county arrived, unannounced, to the Kastens’ motel room.The visit proved disastrous. After hearing noises, the inspectors discovered two people hiding in the bathtub, a violation of the no-visitors rule. And they found drugs.
For John, removal from the motel, which eventually led to stays at a handful of halfway houses in Santa Ana and Garden Grove, came with both trouble — including an arrest warrant for allegedly shoplifting at a Goodwill — and a sense of liberation.Previously more circumspect about transitioning from male to female, John embraced Jan, preferring now to use female pronouns.